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Looking at the whole picture

Photo by Al Clayton

[Recently I attended a gathering of journalists who have all covered poverty extensively, including reporters from the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, and other distinguished outlets, as well as several university professors.

I asked several of them to look at this site and the Grady poverty tutorials, to see if they had any helpful thoughts. I’ll share their viewpoints as posts in Tips and Tools.]

Journalists have to slice and dice complex subjects into readable bits; that’s the nature of the beast. But in doing so, we have to avoid myopia.

Pulitzer-winning journalist David Shipler, who wrote the 2005 book “The Working Poor,” suggested we think about “drawing clearer connections among disparate problems of poverty, to avoid the silo effect.”

He explains:

Poor housing can lead to problems in both mental and physical health, for example–children’s asthma is exacerbated by dust mites, mold, roaches, etc.– which in turn can lead to emergency room visits that can be billed if you don’t have insurance, which in turn can lead to a damaged credit rating and higher interest payments on credit cards and car loans.

In The Working Poor I wrote about Lisa Brooks, who endured just that chain reaction. High housing costs for families without public housing or Section 8 also squeeze food budgets, which are malleable expenditures. I’d think most reporters would be intrigued with these connections, because they don’t occur to most people, and, as we all know, reporters like to break new ground and be counterintuitive when possible.

He also reminds us to think about the real human beings as a way to break free of ideologically polarized debates:

It might also be useful to think about how to translate the current election campaign into human stories on the ground. For example, we’re locked in a sterile ideological dispute over where the responsibility lies: with society or the individual. You might suggest looking at that difficult question in specific cases to show that nobody fits neatly into one box or the other. NGO workers with experience seem able to get past the ideology. Read more

Advice: Reporting on advocacy groups

A debate this month on Linked-In’s “Online reporters and editors” group is illuminating for our work with news and numbers – particularly on policy issues.

Are reporters too lazy to uncover the facts? As one veteran journalist said, “The editors are intent upon covering news the reporter simply picks up from one person or another without even checking to see if there is more to the story or the story is WEAK.”

Wayne Rash, Jr., Editor-in-Chief for FierceMobileIT and Washington Bureau Chief and a columnist for eWEEK, responded with crucial points about reporting on statistics from advocacy groups.

Or what’s worse is that a reporter will get a story from an advocacy group and go with it. They’ll basically re-write the group’s press release without getting any other perspective. Or sometimes they’ll Google the advocacy group, find another article using the same source and quote that. It’s an easy way to turn a story around fast, and the PR people love it.

What’s almost as bad is when the reporter gets the press release from the advocacy group, and in an attempt to appear fair, will get something from an advocacy group on the opposite side of the issue, and then quote both of them. The obvious problem is that there’s no reason to believe that any of those groups are being accurate or truthful.

I’m not suggesting that you should ignore advocacy groups because what they have to say can be important, but you have to check them out, including checking out who they really work for. In addition you have to check to see if what they’re saying is true. I’ve seen advocacy groups distort the truth, ignore parts of the truth, and sometimes simply lie.

The other thing that’s critical is to follow the money. Somewhere if you look hard enough, you’ll find who provides their funding. Read more